1918 – 2018 Private Peaceful

Extract from Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo read at the Library by Malcolm Whittall

I wake to the muffled sound of machine-gun fire, to the distant shriek of shells. The earth quivers and trembles about me, but I am strangely relieved, for all this must mean that I’m not dead. Nor am I at all alarmed at first when I find that all I can see is darkness, because I remember at once that I have been wounded – I can still feel the throbbing in my head. It must be night and I am lying wounded somewhere in no-man’s-land, looking up into the black sky. But then I try to move my head a little and the blackness begins to crumble and fall in on me, filling my mouth, my eyes, my ears. I feel the weight of it now, pressing down on my chest. My legs cannot move, nor my arms. Only my fingers. How slowly I come to know and understand I am buried, buried alive, but then how fast I panic. They must have thought I was dead and buried me, but I am not. I am not! I scream then, and the earth fills my mouth and at once chokes off my breathing. My fingers scrabble, clawing frantically at the earth, but I am suffocating and they cannot help me. I try to think, to calm my raging panic, to try to lie still, to force myself to try to breathe through my nose. But there is no air to breathe. I think of Molly then and commit myself to holding her in my head till the moment I die.

I feel a hand on my leg. One foot is gripped, then the other. From far away I hear a voice, and I know it is Charlie’s voice. He is calling for me to hang on. They are digging for me, pulling at me, dragging me out into the blessed daylight, out into the blessed air. I gulp the air like water,, choking on it, coughing on it, and then at last I can breathe it in.

The next thing I know I am sitting deep down in what looks like the remains of a concrete dug-out, full of exhausted men, all faces I know. Pete is coming down the steps. He is gasping for breath like me. Charlie is still pouring the last dribbles from the water bottle on to my face, tying to clean me up. “ thought we’d lost you, Tommo,” Charlie is saying. “the same shell tha buried you killed half a dozen of us. You were lucky. Your head’s a bit of a mess. You lie still, Tommo. You’ve lost a lot of blood.” I’m shaking now and I’m cold all over and weak as a kitten.

Pete is crouching beside us now, his forehead pressed against his rifle. “All hell’s broken loose out there,” he says. “we’re going down like flies, Charlie. They’ve got us pinned down, machine guns on three sides. Stick your head out of there and you’re a dead man.”

“Where are we ?” I ask.

“Middle of bloody no-man’s-land that’s where, some old German dug-out,” Pete replies, “Can’t go forward, can’t go back.”

“Then we’d better stay put for a while, hadn’t we?” Charlie says.

I look up and see Sergeant Hanley standing over us, rifle in hand and shouting at us. “Stay put? Stay put? You listen to me, Peaceful. I give the orders round here. Whe I say we go, we go. do I make myself clear?”

Charlie looks him straight in the eye in open defiance and does not look away, just as he used to do with Mr Munnings at school when he was being ticked off.

“Soon as I give the word,” the Sergeant goes on, to everyone in the dug-out now, “we make a dash for it, and I mean all of us. Not stragglers, no malingerers – that means you, Peaceful. Our orders are to press home the attack and then hold our ground. Only fifty yards or so to the German trenches. We’ll get there easy.”

I wait till the sergeant moves away, until he can’t hear. “Charlie,” I whisper, “I don’t think I can make it. I don’t think I can stand up.”

“It’s all right, Tommo,” he says, and his face breaks into a sudden smile. “ You look a right mess, Tommo. All blood and mud, with a couple of little white eyes looking out. Don’t you worry, we’ll stay together, no matter what. We always have, haven’t we?”

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